Berman Museum Welcomes its Good Neighbors

Good Neighbors, opening at the Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art Oct. 14, finds its starting point in the many possible notions of home and community, such as memories of a particular place or object, gatherings of like-minded individuals, or the unexpected juxtapositions that come from living in close proximity. But while the art on view touches on themes of family, intimacy, nostalgia, and domesticity, at its core the project is about the common ground between audiences and the artists who are their neighbors.

Good Neighbors features a broad spectrum of work by eleven Philadelphia artists, including large-scale installations by Kay Healy and Raphael Fenton-Spaid; sculptures by Christina P. Day, Drew Leshko, and Lewis Colburn; photographs by Kelsey Halliday Johnson and Sarah Kaufman; video by Cari Freno; and paintings by Emily Smith Satis, Becky Suss, and Seneca Weintraut.

According to Berman Museum Curator Ginny Kollak, Good Neighbors started with the desire to get to know better the work being created by the Ursinus studio art professors Sarah Kaufman and Kay Healy. (Cari Freno recently joined the Ursinus art faculty as well; she was previously the Assistant Director of Museum Education at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.)

Kay Healy’s stuffed-fabric installations are based on other people’s descriptions of items from their childhood homes—often objects they have lost—creating composite domestic spaces that are sites for shared memories. Using a range of media, including drawing, screen-printing, and sculpture, her work explores the tension between the inevitability of change and the pull of memory and nostalgia.

Sarah Kaufman’s work is also connected to themes of home, intimacy, and personal space. Her color photographs depict nude subjects within the cocoon of their own homes and belongings, lost in thought or occupied by solitary, everyday activities. Despite their exposure to view, Kaufman’s use of softly diffused natural light in her photographs envelops her subjects in a comforting, almost protective glow.

“Both Healy and Kaufman make their work by building relationships with members of their surrounding communities, which in turn inspired the process for organizing Good Neighbors,” says Kollak. Over the summer, Kollak visited artists’ studios all over Philadelphia, sometimes accompanied by Charlie Stainback, Director of the Berman Museum, and Kaufman and Healy. Exploring neighborhoods and meeting people involved in the city’s arts community, Kollak tried to get to know as many of her new “neighbors” as she could over the last few months.

This “marathon” of studio visits was familiar to Kollak, who started at the Berman in December 2013. In 2011, as a curatorial resident at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin, Italy, Kollak and two other curators traveled throughout Italy for four months, meeting more than 150 artists along the way.

Kollak has not hit the 150 mark for artists met in Philadelphia yet, but says that the journey is just beginning. “There’s so much incredible talent and a real generosity of spirit in Philadelphia,” she says, “I’m looking forward to continuing to work with the artists I’m meeting here, to combine and contextualize their work in new ways through the Berman’s exhibitions, and to really make an intellectual contribution to this community.”

Kollak has found that Philadelphia’s arts scene is unique in its strong sense of community and artist-driven approach to exhibitions, with its many artist collectives working to support each other through curatorial initiatives and exhibition opportunities. Four of the artists showing in Good Neighbors, for instance, are members of the collectives NAPOLEON and Vox Populi. Several more work for noted art institutions (Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, Locks Gallery, the Institute of Contemporary Art at University of Pennsylvania and the West Collection in Oaks, Pa.) or teach at local universities such as Drexel, University of the Arts, Penn State Brandywine, and the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore).

About the works on view

The artists in Good Neighbors make work that expresses ideas about home in many different ways. Particular objects and spaces resonate in paintings by Becky Suss that depict her grandparents’ mid-century modern house in a style simultaneously familiar and uncanny, and in Christina P. Day’s sculptures of fragments of homes, like windows or doorknobs, that through repetition suggest unending connections. Drew Leshko, meanwhile, questions what we consider worth saving through his architectural models of Philadelphia buildings both humble and grand, all meticulously crafted from paper, metal, and wood.

In an effort to capture the “aura” of home, Kelsey Halliday Johnson has developed a modified Polaroid Land Camera equipped with a microcontroller and copper sensors that measure her Galvanic Skin Response—the electrical conductivity of her skin—as she takes a photograph. She has used the camera to take photographs of emotionally charged environments, like her apartment or the home she grew up in, creating a double exposure that documents both the image seen through the camera’s lens and Halliday Johnson’s visceral response to it.

Home is equated to family in other works, including Seneca Weintraut’s family portrait encrusted with stained and fraying fabric pieces, or his duck decoy sculptures that incorporate lead anchors fashioned by his father. Family roles and relationships are also a key focus of Cari Freno’s work. As with Weintraut, Freno’s father sometimes makes an appearance in her work—their relationship is one of several obliquely referenced in her spare videos, often shot in secluded, wooded settings.

More abstract concepts of home and community are present in collage-inspired works by Lewis Colburn, whose sculptures combine found objects and scale models to retell stories from the past, and in vibrant, humor-filled works by Raphael Fenton-Spaid, whose focus on artificial surfaces draws attention to the thin line between the public and the private.

The private-public divide takes on a political—yet poignant—edge in Emily Smith Satis’s lush watercolor portraits of members of Philadelphia’s transgender community. Making overtures, building trust, and creating lasting bonds is an important part of Smith Satis’s process for painting these portraits, as it is for the Good Neighbors project as a whole. For artists, these kinds of gestures can be quite common—their work in itself represents a generous exchange of feelings and ideas, making them the best kind of neighbors to have.

Events and Public Programs

Good Neighbors opens to the public on Oct. 14. A public reception celebrating the artists will be held at the Berman Museum on Thursday, Oct. 23, from 4 to 7 p.m.

Also on Oct. 23, starting at 7 p.m., will be a closing event for the Berman Museum’s summer exhibition, Sleep: Photographs by Michael Putnam, Film by Andy Warhol. Geralyn Huxley, Curator of Film and Video at the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, will lecture on Warhol’s film work, followed by a special big-screen presentation of Andy Warhol’s Sleep (1963) in its entirety (5 hours, 20 minutes). A landmark of conceptual cinema, the film documents one man’s night of sleep in real time. This is a casual event, held in Ursinus’s Bomberger Hall—feel free to come and go as you wish.

On Tuesday, Oct. 21, at 6 p.m., Good Neighbors exhibiting artists and Ursinus Studio Art faculty members Cari Freno, Kay Healy, and Sarah Kaufman will give a joint talk on their artistic methods and motivations. This event will be held in the Bears’ Den, Wismer Center, Ursinus College.

A program of “Lightning Talks” and a “Neighborhood Mixer” will take place on Wednesday, Nov. 19, from 6 to 9 p.m. in the Berman Museum. Key figures from the local arts community and Good Neighbors exhibiting artists will discuss the realities, challenges, and rewards of working as an artist in Philadelphia and beyond—each in six minutes or less. Afterward, join the Ursinus community and art students and faculty from other Philadelphia-area universities for a good, old-fashioned intercollegiate mixer.

A series of biweekly tours, held every first and third Wednesday of the month, rounds out the public program offerings for Good Neighbors. Join us at noon for exhibition tours led by the Berman Museum’s director, curator, or specially trained students from the museum’s Peer Docents program.

The Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, and from noon to 4 p.m. on weekends. The museum is closed on Mondays. It will also be closed for holidays from November 27–December 1, 2014, and from December 24, 2014–January 5, 2015. Admission to the Berman Museum is always free. It is accessible to visitors with disabilities.